If pooping is comfortable, things are (literally) going well
Pooping shouldn't require too much pushing. Likewise, bowel movements shouldn't hurt. Ideally, you should "evacuate" your waste with almost zero effort and feel as though you've fully emptied yourself, Princeton, New Jersey-based gastroenterologist Anish Sheth, MD, author of What's Your Poo Telling You?, told Time. (Here are some of your weirdest pooping habits, explained by science.)
A brown bowel movement is best
Stool should be any shade of brown or green. "Typically, the food you eat takes three days from consumption to becoming waste," says Dr. Neal. "If stool is on the greener side, it may have taken a shorter time to digest, but it's generally no cause for concern." If stool appears black or tarry, it may be evidence of blood (more about that later). "The darker the stool, the higher up in your GI tract the blood is likely coming from," Dr. Sheth told Time. He explains that blood emanating from ulcers or stomach problems will darken as it passes through your digestive system. Watch out for these clear signs that you have irritable bowel syndrome.
Too few or too many bowel movements can indicate trouble
While everyone has his or her own "normal," having bowel movements three times a week or less is the common definition of constipation. On the flip side, it's harder to say what constitutes too many daily visits to the potty: Some people, due to genetics or lifestyle, are super poopers and need to do some business three or more times a day. That's okay, as long as you're consistent with your own routine, since the real sign of trouble is when you experience a significant change in bowel movement patterns. "If your digestive clock suddenly goes from three times a week to three times a day, that could be a sign of an underlying condition and shouldn't be ignored," says Dr. Neal. Slight changes in the frequency of bowel movements or the consistency of your stool, however, generally don't indicate a problem. "Maybe you ate something that didn't agree with your stomach, or perhaps you were a little dehydrated," says Dr. Neal. "These and many other routine factors can change the color, size, frequency, and consistency of your stool." (Haven't had a bowel movement in a few days? Here are surprising reasons you're suddenly constipated.)
Super stinky stools may mean something is off
Bowel movements that leave your housemates running for cover often have to do with what you eat, but may be a sign of a medical condition. "Food that's not digested properly reaches the colon and starts a fermentation process that turns sugar into gas," explains Dr. Neal. "That can produce a foul-smelling stool." A healthy digestive system will break down food in your small intestine and likely not have as much food left to reach the colon to begin the fermentation process. If your stools go beyond the normal unpleasant, but familiar odor, talk to your doctor. You may have a food intolerance or sensitivity that needs to be addressed. Watch out for these silent signs that you have leaky gut syndrome.
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Very loose poop (but not diarrhea) may be sign of celiac disease
Although celiac affects only about 1 percent of the population, it's estimated that 83 percent of Americans who have celiac disease don't know they have it, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Signs in your stool may be one of the major—and possibly the only—indications you have it, says Prevention. With celiac disease, your body is unable to tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley. Eating gluten destroys villi (the tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining your small intestines) and you're unable to absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. This contributes to the loose stools you could have several times a day. Talk to your doctor about whether you should be screened for celiac disease. Switching to a gluten-free diet can aid absorption, firm up your stools, and address any other related symptoms such as fatigue, pain, bloating, depression, or rashes. (Here are 11 silent signs you have celiac disease.)
The occasional floater is perfectly normal
When poop floats instead of sinks it may mean you have excess gas in your digestive tract, says Prevention. "If you've been eating lots of beans, sprouts, cabbage, or very large meals, it's perfectly normal for stool to float because of gas, and it's not a cause for concern," says Dr. Sheth. However, if floaters become more common for you or you spot an oil-slick appearance, it could mean something is preventing your body from being able to absorb fats from food. For instance, inflammation or an infection in your pancreas could prevent you from producing enough digestive enzymes. A food allergy or infection could be damaging the lining of your intestines that's affecting absorption, too. Ask your doctor for a stool sample test to see if there's fat that shouldn't be there. Dr. Sheth says additional workups may be necessary to get to the bottom of the problem.
Surprise! You can be regular but still constipated
Some people assume that if they go to the bathroom every day then they're not backed up. "But if your stool is consistently hard and comes out in pieces rather than a soft, single piece that passes without much effort, you may be constipated," Dr. Sheth told Prevention. The most common culprit is inadequate fiber intake. The average U.S. adult only downs about 15 grams of fiber a day—a fraction of the recommended 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. Read labels and keep a food journal for a week to track how much fiber you're actually taking in. If you're falling short, bulk up your diet with additional fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Don't forget to hydrate either. According to research in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, fluid intake is the biggest predictor of constipation, Men's Health noted. People who consume less water are more likely to suffer constipation than those who drink more. (Check out these foods that can cause constipation.)
Stool shape can signal trouble
Research suggests that the healthiest stool resembles smooth sausage links. "Sometimes it can be a little bit on the firmer side—where it's shaped like a sausage and has a few cracks on the surface—all the way to soft, semi-formed blobs," gastroenterologist Richard J. Saad, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, told Men's Health. Anything harder or softer than that can be a sign something's wrong. (Check out the Bristol Stool Scale, a handy medical aid that classifies the form of feces into seven categories.) While deviations in form (or frequency) could be a symptom of something as simple as constipation, they could also indicate a more serious problem, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, a bowel obstruction, or maybe even colon or stomach cancer, says T. Lee Baumann, MD, a medical consultant based in Birmingham, Alabama, and the author of Clearing the Air: Art of the Bowel Movement. If constipation isn't the issue, make an appointment with your GP, ASAP. This is especially true if what you see in the toilet looks like thin ribbons or pencil-sized strands—a possible sign of a bowel obstruction or even a symptom of colon cancer.
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Medication can mess with your bowel movements
Got the runs? A host of meds may stimulate your system. According to Men's Health, the biggest culprits are antibiotics, NSAID pain relievers, magnesium-containing antacids, and proton pump inhibitors for heartburn. If you suspect one of these is responsible for a rush to flush, talk to your doctor about adjusting your dose or medication.
Some drugs can affect the hue of your poo
Certain OTC medications, such as Pepto-Bismol, can turn your stool black. It occurs when sulfur in your digestive tract combines with bismuth, the drug's active ingredient, and forms bismuth sulfide, a black-colored substance. The discoloration is temporary and harmless and may linger several days after you stop popping Pepto. (Check out these natural stomach soothers.)
Blood in your stool is always a red flag
If you see even a small amount of blood in your feces on a recurring basis, talk to your doctor. "Blood can be a sign of hemorrhoids, anal fissures, pre-cancerous colon polyps, or an inflammatory bowel disease," gastroenterologist Vasudha Dhar, MD, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University, told everydayhealth.com. In the worst-case scenario, it could be a sign of cancer.